Thu | Dec 13, 2018

Marital rape a myth, seriously?

Published:Monday | November 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Clinton Chisholm

Having sexual intercourse with anyone without that person's consent is rape in law, whether the one who has not consented is wife, sweetheart or whomever. This is true, too, for Christian couples despite some misunderstanding of Paul's point in 1 Cor 7:1-6.

Before I try to unpack the essence of Paul's ideas, let me say that it is my longheld considered opinion that sex should neither be withheld as punishment nor demanded as payment or as one's 'whenever-I-want-it' dessert, despite the prevalence of misbehaviour by Christian and other couples on this score.

The context and language of 1 Cor 7 suggest that Paul was responding to questions about [marital] sex in the Corinthian church. There seemed to have been two extreme views about sex in the church, resulting from a warped Greek view of body (soma in Greek). The basic warped view was that body as flesh was either unreal, or, if real, unimportant to God.

One outcropping of that view was sexual immorality in the church ('since the body is unimportant to God, do what you will with it sexually'). Paul deals with this error in chapter 6. Verse 19 follows on the command in verse 18 to flee 'sexual immorality' (the Greek word so translated is porneia and is broader than what we normally call 'fornication').

Verse 19 reads in the New King James version:

"Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?"

The other outcropping was sexual asceticism (extreme sexual abstention perhaps for super spiritual reasons) by married folk. The view here was 'since the body is unimportant to God, deny it of its natural craving for sex'. Paul corrects this error in chapter 7 by highlighting the normative nature of marital sexual intercourse.

The language he uses is quite beautiful though easily misunderstood. Verse 3 is addressed to married couples but the traditional rendition in the King James Version (KJV) is unclear for many modern readers, so I offer Chisholm's revised version: "Let the husband satisfy his wife sexually and let the wife do likewise". The essential concept here is mutuality in things sexual.

This is not the easiest command to obey as most women, and not a few men, know humility and loving concern must prompt each of us to find out from our spouse what exactly satisfies and try to provide that.

Sexual desire

As I heard one family therapist say: "Women need to understand that a man does not feel complimented simply because his wife consents to have sexual intercourse with him. He wants to know that his wife desires him sexually," and I would add, "and sometimes passionately tears off his garment" with his ecstatic consent and encouragement not to spare him in the ripping.

Every married man, though, needs to understand the peculiarities of his wife re sexual desires, and if the wife is not enjoying the sex act, she will not 'run it down like cook food'. So as another therapist wrote, if while you are 'getting it on' with your wife, she asks you about setting the rat trap in the kitchen or advises you to tell her when you are through, then "yu naah gwaan wid nutt'n".

It is verse 4 that requires special reading skills because of the novel sexual imagery that Paul introduces. It reads in the KJV: "The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband, and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife."

A surface reading would yield notions of being relieved of the right over one's body, but if you look more carefully in context Paul is providing a metaphorical grounding for the mutuality he suggests in verse 3 with a notion that has annoyed some folk.

Paul advances the idea of each spouse holding authority over the partner's body, suggesting to me a delightful sexual scene of a lover seeking to find out what the beloved desires to do with the body over which s[he] exercises authority for pleasure, based on the marriage bond.

This suggests to me that though a spouse can say no to a desired sex act by a partner, bearing in mind Paul's imagery, the ethos should be no with loving explanation. Hence, as I said earlier, sex should neither be withheld as punishment nor demanded as payment or as one's 'whenever-I-want-it' dessert. If mutuality reigns in the relationship, there will be a desire to provide what is needed by one's partner for sexual satisfaction. An ecstatic, mutual sexual duty if you please.

Verse 5 employs the language of accounting based on the emphasis on mutuality and the imagery of mutually flipped body authority so Paul urges married couples, 'do not cook the books sexually' (the essence of the Greek for 'do not defraud each other') and he reiterates the principle of mutuality. Ponder that verse from the Contemporary English Version,

"So don't refuse sex to each other, unless you agree not to have sex for a little while, in order to spend time in prayer. Then Satan won't be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control." [emphasis added]

Marital rape is a sinful reality and when it happens, in all likelihood, one partner may be guilty of sinfully starving the other, while the starved one may have frustrated the spouse by unsatisfying eating habits (no pun intended).

n Rev Dr Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to and